Travelling pants: Interview with Renyung Ho
To Renyung Ho, respecting and valuing provenance in the products we purchase matters. And it is precisely because of this strong conviction that Matter was born.
Together with partner Yvonne Suner, Matter has been creating apparel with a social purpose. Collaborating with artisan communities across India, the local brand delivers comfortable travel wear inspired by traditional Asian silhouettes. But what really makes their designs unique are the fabrics that are printed, woven and stitched using time-honoured techniques such as hand looming and block printing.
We spoke to Ren, as she is better known, to find out how her mission to educate consumers to appreciate provenance and support rural textile artisanship has been so far.
What inspired you to start Matter? Was it the fundraising journey you took around India called Rickshaw Run?
Actually, the idea came before that when I was living and working in Mexico with my co-founder Yvonne. She is from an island in Spain called Tenerife, I'm from an island in Southeast Asia and we met in South America, Mexico. Our connection across the cultures we experienced planted the seed for a business that expressed the type of travel we loved — story-driven, community based, built on direct relationships and a commitment to provenance. We thought that there must be many more people like us who value products made in this way, and we felt that through design interpretation, textile artisanship would be a sustainable means of living.
The catalyst came from the Rickshaw Run where we drove over 14 days and 3,000km as a fundraising trip from North to South India. In that time, I met many people with whom I continue to work with today, and it was the catalyst that made me realise that if there was any time to start something, it was now. This was four years after Yvonne and I had met.
Why the name Matter and why pants in particular?
Matter is our brand name — we've always wanted to be a collaborative, inclusive label rather than a 'designer' brand, and so we knew the name had to be one that resonates with people. The word 'matter' reflects our values of going back to basics, to the things that connect us across cultures — stories and values. The company name is Matter Prints because we focus on prints and motifs that tell a story in history.
We chose pants because I believe in focusing on one thing and doing it really well, as well as understanding the customer and their needs before expanding to other products. Not coming from a fashion or retail background the idea of launching with just three pants styles was not particularly surprising to me. It kind of made sense to test with prototypes and expand from there. I guess coming from outside the industry I've taken a different approach and we don't follow traditional fashion cycles.
Tell us about your latest collection — Monochrome Kangura — that's available in nine styles.
Yes, it's available in popular styles like The Sideswept Dhoti, Modern Monpe, and Classic Wideleg. Monochrome Kangura is actually a series of three print iterations from the original Kangura print which we released last year. The Kangura is an architectural print which is traditionally used to print on walls of new houses in Rajasthan. Triangles would be printed in red at the top of the walls and three lines at the bottom for a stable foundation. The triangular form has a very symbolic history and we wanted to elaborate on that. Also, we've explored so much colour in our previous editions that it felt like time to embrace a monochromatic palette.
How has Matter Prints created a positive impact in the communities you've discovered so far?
In many ways, I think the artisan communities have impacted us positively in teaching us a different way of life and showing me values of community, dedication, and consideration. They've been working on their craft for well over three generations and exist in tandem with one another within a clear geographical space — because they share resources with one another and their livelihoods depend on it. There is a strong sense of community and relationships. In a blockprinting community you have wood block carvers, dyers, colour masters, weavers and printers. There's many parts to it.
I don't think of us as helping them as many times I feel grateful that they're willing to work with an ignorant partner like myself with so much to learn. Our mission is to make artisan production sustainable — this means developing a production model and business model that works alongside artisan production seasonality, as well as working together to develop new types of printing. Beyond the number of days of employment that we generate (a key metric for us), I think the intangible benefit to both comes from the mutual learning. We come from different worlds, but the space in between is beautiful.
Many people don't know where the clothes they wear come from or even who makes it. Can you share with us inspiring stories about the artisans you work closely with?
Khushiram and Ashish are two brothers that inspire me very much. They are fourth generation blockprinters and owners of their family business that have stuck to block printing as a craft even when many of their family members are moving to screen print. Their father won the President's Design Award for blockprinting, and they are very proud of it. Khushiram studied design in school and is keen to apply his knowledge to innovate within the printing medium, and that's exciting and inspiring to me when I meet an artisan who is open to new ideas. They also want to set up a non-profit that trains women in artisan crafts. I'm excited when I work with partners where there is mutual respect, aligned values and therefore limitless potential for true collaboration.
Block printing is one of your signature printing techniques. Of all the prints created using this technique, which one is your personal favourite?
That's a tough one to choose! I think it would have to be the Leharia print, which symbolises the waves of monsoon. I remember so clearly the afternoon that we were in the printing workshop together and this was a block that already existed with the artisans, and we were all playing around together on how to lay it out in an interesting way. It was a true collaboration.
Why do you think patterns, prints and fabrics tell a story?
What we wear has always been a marker of who we are and where we belong in society. Fabric is probably the oldest craft form we have, and clothing is a direct expression of our choices (and non choices). Humans are made to create, and made to tell stories, and we are born to search for meaning. Patterns and prints are an expression of that yearning to make meaning. If you give a child a blank canvas and a pencil, they'll be drawing symbols that mean something to them.
Your brand strives on being socially responsible. Do you think Matter has achieved that mission and purpose?
I don't think its something we achieve, but rather principles that we try to live by and that guides business decisions. I'm not sure that one day I will feel like we have 'arrived' at being socially responsible. I say we are a socially motivated business because we are motivated by a mission beyond profit, which is threefold: to inspire consumers to value provenance and heritage, to connect designers to artisans in collaborations, and to support the sustainability of rural textile artisanship. The mission is huge, and therefore I always feel like we are not doing enough, and there is more to be done.
What are Matter's work ethic and values? Does it also apply to everything you do personally and professionally?
In the beginning stage every company is a direct expression of the founders' values and vision. Our work ethic is very much about a collaborative spirit, mutual trust and respect, and individual personal development. And yes, I try to carry these principles throughout all that I do. I think when your inner values align with your external actions throughout all spheres of influence whether that be personal or professional, that's success.
You've been working very closely with artisans in India. Any plans to source from other developing countries?
Not just developing countries, but any country that has an artisan base. I would love to eventually explore fabrics in other parts of the world as well, but it makes sense to start in Asia where we have so much. We are in the process of exploring batik in Java, Indonesia and hand-loomed silk in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Matter offers a variety of relaxed-fit pants. What's the difference between each style?
Let's start with similarities — they all have no zips and flexible closures, meaning you can wear the pieces high or low and style them differently throughout the day and your travels. In terms of differences, length and type of closure are the main variants. We have different closures like wrap styles, drawstrings, belt d-rings, and the fit will differ based on that. We have nice pants styles most of which are unisex and seasonless, and as time goes by it's the fabrics that change. This allows us to focus on innovating within the fabric medium and ensuring excellence and consistency in the garment construction.
It's been a year now since we've launched — moving forward we'll be expanding next year into other elements of travel wear - this year we're already experimenting with scarves which are a great platform for collaborations we've found.
We hear you road test the pants. What kind of rigorous testing does it go through?
Each member of the team wears them on travels and throughout the day, and washes and wears them again to see how they hold up in terms of after care so prototypes get tested in daily life. We also have field testers who wear the pants in different climates and environments. They've worn them as far as Iceland and Nicaragua recently, and give us great feedback on how they hold up.
Are there other social-responsible brands you support? Can you name a few
So many. I love Warby Parker as a company, alongside Apolis, Lalesso, and Patagonia.
If you could make a difference in the world, what would you do?
I believe that greatness happens in a series of small things lined up together, and so the change I try and effect is in my direct relationships with whomever I work with and come into contact with. If I can leave someone feeling a little more inspired to align their values with their life work, feeling a little more connected to the great tapestry of humanity and feeling respect for the integrity of their fellow person, I am content on a daily basis.